Sunday, September 02, 2007

26 August 2007

Jeremiah 1:4-1

1:4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
1:5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
1:6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
1:7 But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you,
1:8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
1:9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
1:10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

It is the number one fear reported by people candid enough to describe their fears. It is feared more than death, more than rattlesnakes, more than in-laws. The technical term is glossophobia, and has nothing to do with lip-gloss. According to some studies, up to three-quarters of you are affected. Guesses?

If you have this fear, I can assure you that not only are you not alone, but you are in good company. Both Barbara Streisand and Peter Gabriel suffer from glossophobia, as did the late Dusty Springfield. It manifests itself both emotionally and physically, with sufferers reporting “increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, increased perspiration, stiffening of neck/upper back muscles, and dry mouth” (wikipedia).

For most glossophobes, it is enough to practice avoidance. Fewer and fewer jobs require public speaking, and there are usually enough people around who are eager to get to the microphone that a serious glossophobe can give the floor to someone else. Of course, what is avoidable for many, was inevitable for poor Jeremiah:

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD!
Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

To be fair to Jeremiah, his complaint was less fear and more inexperience: inexperience coupled with being confronted by the LORD God and commanded to speak unpleasant truth to those in power. The lifespan of a prophet was considerable shorter than the general population, so Jeremiah had cause to object. But God wasn’t offering a choice, this was a command, and there was little Jeremiah could do. He was, after all, born to this work, a claim that begins to make more sense if we go a little deeper into the text.

According to the introduction to the book, Jeremiah is a priest from a line of priests in the region of Benjamin. He comes from a little town called Anathoth, and while it is a mere three miles from Jerusalem, it is barely mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Barely mentioned, but for one important instance. Some 400 years before Jeremiah, while King Solomon is consolidating power, a priest and his patron are accused of plotting against the king. The life of the priest is spared, but he is sent away to tiny Anathoth.

Walter Brueggemann, in describing the call of Jeremiah, insists that we cannot understand him without reference to Anathoth. When God says Jeremiah was born to do this work, we import the idea of call, the sense that he was pre-ordained a prophet and given all the tools to undertake this work. But Bruegemann takes this firther. Imagine, he says, four hundred years spent on the edge of royal power: four hundred years nursing the hurt of being sent away, four hundred years of preparing for the day when perhaps a message could be shared once more.

But there is more. The priests of Anathoth were scholars of Deuteronomy, making it their unique mission to highlight the book wherever people might listen. They recounted the story of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law, the disobedience of the people, and God’s desire to save only the children of those who entered the desert. In Deuteronomy, Moses restates the commandments, and refines what they mean for the people that will enter the Promised Land. He takes the covenant obligations of the people and insists that they extend to the most vulnerable ones in their midst, extending beyond the community itself.

For four hundred years the priests of Anathoth have been waiting. They are minor league prophets, waiting to be called up the “the show.” For four hundred years they have been waiting and studying, seeing the hills of Jerusalem off in the distance and hoping that their day would come. In four hundred years of reading you are likely to find the heart of the matter. Read Deuteronomy often enough, says Walter Brueggemann, and you will happen on these words:

19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the orphan and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the orphan and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the orphan and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Spend four hundred years reading Deuteronomy and you will become well acquainted with the alien, the orphan and the widow. Read this phrase a dozen times over a handful of chapters and you will begin to discover the unique regard God has for the alien, the orphan and the widow. Sit with the priests of Anathoth in their long exile and imagine what they come to regard as the principle failing of the ones over the hill in Jerusalem.

Study power and it will lead you to the same place: power is most interested in maintaining itself. Power is dedicated to remaining at the centre. Power is least likely to concern itself with those who have lost power, and looks only to those with more power for solace and inspiration. Of those on the outside, of those who have never had power, power itself remains intentionally unaware.

Study those without power, and you will soon become acquainted with the alien, the orphan and widow. They find themselves outside the tribe. They find themselves outside the patriarchal power structure that defined theirs and every other society. And they find themselves a convenient scapegoat for all of society’s failings.

Several years ago the motel strip along Kingston Road began to fill up it homeless people. Motel owners made their properties available to a city-housing regime unable to cope with a sudden increase in homeless families. The media, seeing a good story, highlighted the fact that some of the families were refugee claimants, and gave the impression that the strip was being overrun.

When tensions began to rise, and a backlash began, housing advocates tried to communicate the facts on the ground: the majority of families were Scarborough families, local poor people who had lost their housing and were forced to find refuge in the shelter system. No one seemed to care. All the media wanted to talk about were refugees and the unfair way the federal government was burdening local taxpayers. The poor of Scarborough were ignored. Two years after the deepest cuts to welfare this province ever saw, ordinary Scarborough families found themselves out on the street, a story that largely went unreported. Fast forward 10 years and poverty in Scarborough is still ignored. Wake up Dalton, people are hungry.

Jeremiah says this of the powerful:

27Like a cage full of birds,
their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
28they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan,
to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. 29Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

The message of Deuteronomy and the message of Jeremiah and the message of Jesus is this: the fate of a society rests on how it cares for the most vulnerable. And while you may not believe in divine retribution and you may not believe in God’s role in the exodus or the exile, I think it is reasonable to believe that God has unique regard for the broken, the outcast, the stranger, the people least likely to be embraced by those with power.

History teaches us that societies that kept slaves and denied power to the majority of their citizens eventually failed. Sadly, for every East Germany and South Africa there are numerous states that skirt the margins of injustice, that avoid the most egregious forms of oppression in favour of more subtle forms: ignoring the poor, blaming the immigrant and promoting so-called traditional families. We need to continually test whether we have become one of those societies.

In the coming weeks Jeremiah will continue to speak. He will overcome his fear, and describe timeless themes. He will speak of judgement and hope, retribution and redemption. Through it all we will see ourselves, we will see God, and we will see a vision to lead us forward. Amen.


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